The Universal Periodic Review3331 09 Aug, 2012
Ms. Teixeira: Thank you Mdm. Deputy Speaker. I am very pleased that this motion has come to this House by the Prime Minister. I think there are issues which we need to talk about in our country and issues which we need to address. We need to find answers. To just explain to members of the House, we had distributed this compendium of our experience and the speeches and the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review in October 2010. It will be an important document, I think, for all the new Members of Parliament (MPs) to also have in their possession.
The Universal Periodic Review in the first trench, Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett led our delegation. I was honoured to be on it and also Ambassador P.I. Gomes. We were the only delegation in that session that had majority women in it. You may be pleased to have heard that. In fact, the majority delegation was male. It was male dominated. We were the only delegation that had a female heading the delegation and on the floor. In the Periodic Universal Review it is different than when you go before a committee of SEDAL or Rights of the Child or Convention against Torture. You are questioned by the countries present and they make recommendations not a committee. The country then has to agree or not agree or say what they are going to do or what they are in progress of doing or what they disagree with or do not accept or what they are going to work towards. It is an interesting process that has started. The first review cycle has finished and in the second review cycle Guyana will be reviewed. I think it is around 2016.
It is a very interesting experience. It is intimidating in a way, but not as intimidating as some of the other committees you have to go before. It gave us an opportunity, I think as a country, to recognise that there were these issues that we have strong differences within families, communities, organisations and probably in the House on both sides; there is no clear line as Minister Priya Manickchand pointed out.
I wanted to add to the debate, and I think there are a couple of things. Mr. Nagamootoo pointed out about having three Committees and so forth. This is a 65 member House that has already about 14 Standing Committees within the last few Sitting. In this one we would have now reach 6 Special Select Committees that will have to be appointed when we come back in October. This is quite a big stress for the Members of the House. To split this into three Committees further dissipates forces. As, I think one member pointed out, we can have sub-committees in the Parliamentary Select Committees to focus on one particular area. I think both administratively as well as in the Standing Order that concern of Mr. Nagamootoo could be handled.
I think this is an attempt to try to deal with what are controversial issues in a more sober environment. Maybe some people may find that ironical that we may be considered a more sober environment because some of our debates certainly do not give people that impression about the Parliament. I believe we need to look at the issue of corporal punishment. Shontell Smith had brought a motion which was adopted with amendments in 2007 in this House. The Education Bill consultations went on, and because of the controversy and the very deep and strong views it did not come back as it was planned. I believe this is an opportunity where we can deal with it.
I thought that it might be useful, because when we talk about corporal punishment, if we look at the recommendations that Guyana has received – by the way, the countries that were in our session, the majority of them gave the same recommendations to do with corporal punishment, the death penalty and lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgender. A number of the countries choose the avenue that we did, that is to say that we are going to go back, because it is controversial, and consult and so on. When we talk about corporal punishment, look at the recommendations which have so much to do with abolishing it from school system, others from the home et cetera. I thought it might be useful to have a clear idea of what we mean by corporal punishment because there seems to be different definitions. The United Nations (UN) committee on the Rights of a Child in its general comment of No. 8 of 2006, paragraph 11, because of the difference of what people thought corporal or physical punishment meant they had a committee of experts put together a definition to guide counties on what is corporal punishment. It goes as follows, and I quote, “Any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Most involves hitting, smacking, slapping or spanking children with the hand or with an implement, a whip, stick, belt shoe, wooden spoon et cetera. It can also involve for example kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, puling or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion” For example, one that was very popular in Guyana when I was growing up is washing ones mouth out with soap or sometimes giving you pepper sauce or something like that. In the view of the committee corporal punishment is invariably degrading. In addition there are other non-physical forms of punishment that are also cruel and degrading and thus incompatible with the convention. These include for example punishment which belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares or ridicules the child. I think if we use that as a definition, because I hear many people saying that a smack on the bum is alright, but if you put pepper sauce of something like that or boxing a child’s ear is corporal punishment. I think we need to get it clear what we mean by it. It is a range of punishments, physical and emotional that does harm to a child.
The Committee, I assume when we meet, will look at what are the international guidelines on some of these issues. Clearly there are very strong differences amongst our people and what we think. There is a resilience and resistance by people that the State must not get involved in how you run you family. We have brought in children’s legislation in this country that protects the child even from an abusive family, mother or child. Therefore, the State and the Constitution of our country protects the child. The child is the first and primary interest in decisions being made in relation to the child’s welfare.
We have come a long way in terms of a lot of our legislative instruments, and our social programmes, but we still have a time lag that we have to address as a country. Certainly I am looking forward, I would like to be a member of this Committee, because I think it is going to be a really interesting Committee, but I believe it is also going to challenge us in a variety of ways.
The other issue that we have to look at, the abolition of the death sentence, I think we have to, in addition to what the Hon. Member Mr. Williams spoke about, is that we brought the amendment to the Criminal Law Offences Act 2010 to Section 100 where instead of just having the straight death penalty once murder was committed, we made a series of categories in which life imprisonment with parole could be exercised by the Courts. I think that was the first initial important step for Guyana to be moving in that direction.
I will say this; in 2002-2008 crime-wave we had a lot of consultations with communities, religious organisations and businesses. Part of that time I was the Minister of Home Affairs. I remember people getting up at meetings and saying “hang them; you have people sitting the capital row. Why are you not doing anything?” This was the backlash to crime; it was a tendency in any country. Were you have a upsurge in crime you also have a upsurge in the call for instituting the death penalty.
In 2010, I think we took our first step as a country to say that this Section 100 was so broad and sweeping that it did not leave any room for differentiations between different crimes in relation to homicide and manslaughter and so on. I think that was the first step. We have not as Mr. Williams said, executed anybody since 1997. There are, in the recommendations to Guyana, as in other countries, the whole spectrum of what you could do, i.e. a moratorium on the death penalty all the way through to the abolition of the death penalty. In fact, the Inter-American report that has recently come out talking about the abolition of the death penalty and showing countries that have taken some measures in the Americas points out that it is not only about abolishing, that one could do a range of things in between moratorium so and so forth. The issue that Mr. Williams raised about the length of time that someone is sitting on death row is an important issue and it is one that has been raised in the Convention against Torture.
Guyana, in the International Covenant on Civil and Public Right (ICCPR) is one of the countries that have a reservation on the issue of the abolition of the death penalty. This is something we need to also talk about. That is why the Motion call for the inclusion of, as with the inclusion of corporal punishment, for us to get children’s voices on this issue and not just adults and on the issue of the death penalty to include a range of specialists, victims, criminologists, including social scientists and stuff like that as well as people who are prisoners. We need to talk to them; they need to have a voice too.
The studies that have been done globally and in the Caribbean and in some cases the University of West Indies which have done some of these studies to show that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime and to major violent crime. These are things I think the Committee will have to examine and in its best judgement come back to this House after having taken positions written and oral from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), individuals, et cetera.
The issue of decriminalising, same-sex consent adult relations. No one has really spoken about it in the House although that is one of the issues. I listen sometimes to people speaking on the television and radio and it seems to be that people think it is modern occurrence, that the decadence of modern society has brought the emergence of lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transgenders. In fact it was only a couple years ago I learnt what a transgender was. I really did not know what a transgender was. I now know what it is. I am sure you do now too, i.e. talking about people who were born with one sex and who biologically go through surgical interventions and others to become another sex or have another gender. I used to get transgenders mixed up with transvestites which are two different things. If we go through history, the fact that sexuality and sexuality that included not only heterosexual relations but same-sex relations and bisexual relations go back thousands of years. I was asking Dr. Rupert Roopnarine to remind me of my Roman history with Emperor Nero and others - they are written about – when there seemed to be a world that was much more open and tolerant of such activities and such relations between people, versus the more modern world in which many countries in some cases have been extremely intolerant in. In Guyana, we have an interesting way.
We are not a violent country against those who are lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons; we are not openly violent. If you talk to people about it they will generally say I do not want to know what people do in their bedrooms. I do not want to know. They will put it in my face but I do not want to be asked to say anything about it. That is generally what a lot of Guyanese say about this matter if they are not being very derogatory. I have also heard people talking on this issue since we brought it out. These are issues we have to address as a country. I have heard different people say this is an attempt to have same sex marriages. This is not about that. This is about adult consensual same sex relations and decriminalising it. What do we mean by that? The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) wrote a letter on 26th March, 2012 explaining their position and what were the issues raised in the UPR to Guyana. The letter talks about three sections of the Criminal Law Offences Act Chapter 8:01, Sections, 351, 352 and 353 which basically deals with male and male sexual relations; whether the relations is consensual or not the present law is not interested. There is nothing in our laws to do with lesbianism; there is nothing to do in our laws with bisexuality; there is nothing in our laws to do with transgender. All of these laws are old; they go back to the 1860s. Nobody knew about transgender in the 1860s. [Interruption] Transgender is a biological change, if a woman becomes a man or a man becomes a woman. They could not do that in the 1860s. Come on Basil! But for the three parts of the law that have to be looked at are the laws when they say decriminalising talking about the removal or amendment of these three sections that make it a criminal offence for male and male sexual relations. That is fundamentally what it is. [Interruption] No, women are not included; bisexuals are not included unless they are found with another male – a male with a male. What we are talking about in this motion is looking at those three sections and deciding after hearing people what we should do.
The other section of the criminal law that has to be looked at is the summary Jurisdiction Offences Act Chapter8:02, Section 153, which makes it an offence for a man to be dressed as a woman. It does not make it an offence for a woman to be dressed as a man, but it does make it an offence for a man to be dressed as a woman. Of course this is another old piece of legislation that has to be looked at. It is funny because this exists at the same time when some of our culture practices have that transvestite arrangement. When we perform some of our cultural traditions in Guyana, people dress as the other sex. This goes back again hundreds of years and comes from other countries to Guyana. This is part of our cultural makeup but we do not see it as offensive. We do not see it as offensive when the masquerade bands come along and the men are dressed as “mother sally”. We do not see it when in certain dances with religious and cultural events a man is dressed as a woman. We do not find that offensive culturally. We, therefore, have to look at this and retain what I believe in our culture is a good thing, a tolerant thing, not a violent thing, and to recognise that we can in our society deal with these differences.
The other part is looking at the issue of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Are they discriminated against in our society? Are there prejudices against them? If there are how can we rectify that? Many of the persons who have gone to court claim they are discriminated against by the police. They claim that to get a job in certain places they are discriminated against. We on the Government side do not believe that in our labour laws or in the practices, at least in the Government, that there are discriminatory practices to do with persons who may have a sexual preference. However, there are prejudices in the society; that is very clear. Therefore we have to address those. Our society must address the prejudices that exist as best as we can.
Mdm. Deputy Speaker the motion before us does not preclude the Government, the NGOs, or the Opposition Parties from having their own consultations with people to get their views. It does not preclude that. It allows us, as we said, to enhance the dialogue, the conversation, on these issues. We want to be able to have people freely come to the committee through the committee’s work programme and address the concerns of SASOD. I assume Members of the House know what SASOD is. It is the organisation, I believe, one of the only ones in Guyana that deals specifically with sexual orientation. Today, before coming to the National Assembly, I got an email from a member of a religious organisation – I think most of us got that – violently opposed to this issue. We will encounter these very strong positions, but we have to be able to create an atmosphere where people will be invited to present their views.
I remember on the Age of Consent Bill when we had a select committee considering moving the age of consent from 12 to 16 years we had many people come to us wanting to take it to 18 and 21 years. Out of the blues this man appeared, he was scheduled to come before us, and he came with a position to the committee that the age should be reduced from 12 to eight years because he felt that a child is sexually mature enough at that age. We had to restrain ourselves in the committee. Anyway, we listened to him politely and he left. That situation gives an idea of the spectrum we would be dealing with.
This issue is going to create a lot of discussions. I think the challenge for the committee would be to make sure the environment of those coming before us is one in which people feel free to express their views, they can bring their research, their studies, their religious and other beliefs to us. We must be open to listen to the views that these issues generate in people who come from the wide spectrum in society.
In the first Be It Further Resolved’clause No (iii), “the attitude of Guyanese of any changes in legislative provisions” et cetera. I was approached by SASOD asking specifically that I include after the words “attitude of Guyanese” “particularly lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender”. My response to them was that by saying the “attitude of Guyanese” we meant all Guyanese – heterosexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals. But it would be remiss of me not to say that was their request here. We must assure the persons we are talking about that they have a voice and are included in the consultations.
Maybe it would be a good reprieve for us in this House to deal with these issues later. It is the last night of this session of the Tenth Parliament. Over the last six months it has been rough on all of us, stressful, a challenge, unchartered waters, et cetera -a new dispensation – whatever name you want to call it. Maybe it might be a good thing, after recess we will be able to come back a little more settled, a little more comfortable in our skins and be able to deal with an issue we have toyed with and try to deal with in different times and ways and not succeeded.
In the 1970s there were three issues that came to this House and went to select committee. One was on divorce, changes the reasons for divorce; the abortion issue, and the third issue I cannot remember right now what it was. These issues went before select committees. A number of old members who are not here anymore the records show were unable to complete the work. That was in the 1970s. In the 1990s we were able to bring back one of them, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill. This was an issue that was fraught with controversy. That Committee was able to work. We were able to have all the different positions in the midst of many very graphic and horrible things sent to us. We came back with a Bill that was actually rewritten in committee. There was agreement between the two sides of the House. There were similar issues like these when there was no clarity on either side; people had very strong views on either side and there had to be a vote of conscience. In fact, the first vote of conscience, I believe, in the history of this House was on the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill. It passed. I am using that as an example to show that we can as a parliament, with differences, to be able to find the best we know how. If we go into this with the idea we want to listen, we want to hear and we want to be able to do for our children what is the best, we want to be able to examine if it true.
Some of us were laughing during the break. Mdm. Deputy Speaker said she had never been hit as a child. We were joking that maybe that is why she is the way she is; she was not disciplined. Some of us were saying the same thing that…
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: On a Point of Order. I did not say I was not disciplined. I was not beaten.
Ms. Teixeira: She was not beaten. Then I said I think I was beaten once. Someone else made the same comment that is why you are the way you are.
There are obviously very strong views on this matter and I believe this motion is a good way to go. We are going to try to do this in a very sober way to show that we are capable as leaders of this country, and that we will be able to come back to the House with a timeframe of what we are doing, because we also need to be able to assure people who are watching us that we are doing this in a fair and transparent way. We are not going in with an agenda that is going to ram-road this through. I do not think from the debates today we have that view from anybody. Although I know, in fairness to everybody here, people have very strong and different views.
Mdm. Deputy Speaker, I am very pleased that the motion has finally come to the House and I look forward and hope that all will support its going to a select committee so we are going to be able to work on this issue over the next few months.
Thank you very much. [Applause]
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